Think of the French countryside, and you think of chateaux. They come in as many different styles as there are pastries in Paris, from medieval fortresses to fairytale castles, royal palaces to lovely country manors, but in all you’ll find a rousing sense of history and culture.
They can be found all over the country, but nowhere has such a dense collection as the Loire Valley, the slow-paced, beautiful region of France that seems to embody art de vivre. So dotted with chateaux is it, that a large stretch of the area is listed as a Unesco world heritage site in honour of its great architectural monuments. For any holiday here, by campervan or car, hiking or two-wheeling, chateaux are inescapable, much like the great food and wine tastings – together, they’re a quintessential Loire experience.
From the pinnacle of the French Renaissance chateau to lesser-known (and petite) outposts, and offering activities from wine-tasting through to spas, here are some of the best chateaux to visit in the Loire Valley.
Chateau de Villandry
This imposing country pad was the last major Loire chateau built during the Renaissance, when Jean Breton – one of King Francis I’s ministers – transformed a feudal fortress by bringing in a swathe of Italian and French architectural elements: decorated pilasters, the steep sloping roofs and a gallery with arcades. Owned by the same family since 1906, tours take guests through restored salons filled with vintage Spanish art and collections charting the family’s history; the 15th-century Hispano-Moorish ceiling in the drawing room, brought back from Toledo, Spain, in 3,600 pieces and put together over 12 months, is an unexpected delight.
Villandry’s six landscaped gardens are the real showstopper. A vast of kitchen garden laid out in geometric shapes is tended to by a team of gardeners who get down to trim the edges by hand, and is best seen from the rooftop, while paths lead to slightly – but only just – less-formal patches of cascading blooms and rows of lime trees.
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Chateau du Rivau
Join the peacocks and roam freely. There’s some formality around the grounds here, but overall it’s shot through with a less-than-serious…